A Matter of Scale, part 1 of 2
by Jonathon Burgess
Hristomarth Rofolio never expected to get caught stealing. What’s more, he never expected the bargain that saved his head. But after being sent to investigate a problem in a tiny mountain village, he’ll wish he’d kept his date with the executioner.
* Go to part 2 – Coming Soon!
Hristomarth Rofolio was disappointed in the crowd awaiting his beheading.
To start, there could have been more of them. He had always intended to make a show of it when his time finally came. But those in the square below the scaffold were a meager assemblage, most of them only passersby who had stopped to take in the novelty of his death.
They were a quiet bunch as well. During his admittedly short stay, Hristomarth had found all the people of Gadasac Township to be sullen and morose. These, though, were especially silent. And as the overweight headsman lifted his axe, Hristomarth bemoaned the silence of the crowd. He wanted them loud and yelling. A show needed noise. If they would just call him a cheat, a liar, a thief, then here at the end of his life he could make an event of it.
He’d taken a lot from them already. Why couldn’t they give him just that little bit more?
The headsman lurched beside Hristomarth, his bulk blocking what little sun shone through the clouds. He raised his axe up overhead with a grunt. Hristomarth closed his eyes.
The tromp of heavy boot steps accompanied the voice. Hristomarth could not see who climbed the scaffold stairs, bound and kneeling against the block as he was. Fortunately, the newcomer obliged him by walking into view.
It was Vigilant Erfenot. Hristomarth recalled the florid fellow from last evening’s trial, the man responsible for protecting Gadasac Township from folk like Hristomarth and his ex-companions. At his side stood the grim-faced deputy enforcer, a hulk with eyes like dark iron and a heavy axe at his side.
Vigilant Erfenot squatted down beside Hristomarth. “Sumptuous greetings,” he said, smiling grimly around a pipe that bobbed from his lips. “How goes the day, you young mountebank?”
Hristomarth shrugged. “I am endeavoring to get my hair cut. The barber is somewhat overzealous, I suspect, but I shan’t hold it against him. I must complain again, however, good Vigilant. Trials in your township are marked not only by an unseemly haste, but a blatant disregard for necessary pomp.”
The Vigilant nodded sagely. “Things are done pragmatically in Gadasac,” he replied, sitting back in a squat. “Illuminate me as to where your friends escaped to, and perhaps we will finish trimming your nails for you, instead.”
Hristomarth grimaced. Most of the fingers on his right hand were long missing their tips. Losing any more was untenable. “Would that I could,” he replied. “Alas, there is a surfeit of trust in this world, and it is repaid in treachery and subversion. To wit, they’ve left me in the lurch and taken to the road with Gadasac’s valuables. So much for my career as Troupemaster! Where shall I locate able performers now?”
“Sympathy would be inappropriate,” said Erfenot flatly. “You had planned to leave with them as well, after robbing us blind during your little spectacles.”
“As I said, there is perhaps too much trust in the world. Though the people of Gadasac have been relieved of that particular affliction.” Hristomarth nodded sadly. “For teaching this lesson, I shall find myself short my own magnificent head. So it goes. But I had dearly loved running my little circus.”
Erfenot puffed on his pipe, sending smoke rings floating skyward. He appeared to consider something before grunting sharply. “The vagaries of small enterprise are ever fortune’s plaything,” he said. “Yet perhaps an adjustment can be made in regard to your impending subtraction.”
The headsman gave a sigh and turned away at the news that he wouldn’t be needed for the moment. Down below, the spectators dispersed quietly, going again about their errands. Hristomarth peered at the Vigilant sharply.
“How’s this?” he asked.
“Investigation into your paraphernalia uncovered an oddity. Specifically, an old boot at the bottom of your satchel, stuffed with a rolled stocking, in turn concealing a silver amulet. An amulet of rare providence, it must be said. An Illuminate’s amulet, that speaks of extensive competencies completely at odds with the mountebank I see before me.”
Hristomarth felt his heart tumble into his stomach. There were worse things than dying. Torture and the stake came readily to mind. “It is the nature of a Troupemaster’s trinkets to multiply,” he replied with a nonchalant shrug.
“Certainly for you, you cutpurse rogue. But your inept deflection confirms my suspicion.” He nodded in satisfaction. “I’ve a use for you, wherein I care not one whit about the vagaries of your past. One day’s travel into the mountains north lies a small village. This village, called Seetch, is under the protection of Gadasac Township. Recently it has requested aid against some manner of creature. Assist the village and your sentence shall be commuted to the arguably harsher fate of exile from Gadasac.”
Hristomarth blinked. “A monster? What kind?”
“I possess neither the knowledge nor any desire to acquire it,” replied Vigilant Erfenot. “However, the viability of your reply is bound to the tobacco remaining within my pipe.”
Hristomarth Rofolio didn’t even have to think about it. “Give me my boots back, and I’ll be gone before you can stand up straight.”
* * *
Clouds rumbled overhead with the promise of midmorning rain.
“I merely state that an excess of concern is unwarranted,” said Hristomarth. “Without the bond of trust, no cooperative undertaking is attainable. We share a task, you and I. Thus trust and brotherly candor must be the bedrock of our new association.”
The mountain trail was steep. Rocks jutted out from the dirt, accidental flagstones that twisted Hristomarth’s step as often as it assisted his climb.
“The prisoner thinks he is clever,” replied Gadasac’s deputy in a rough, rasping voice. “The prisoner thinks he could agree to Vigilant Erfenot’s offer and simply run off without tending to the village of Seetch. But the prisoner will see to his duty while I draw breath. He shall not escape my sight.”
Hristomarth admitted to himself that this had been exactly the plan. “Perhaps too much candor,” he replied bitterly. “I still think that one deserves a modicum of privacy when attending to nature’s call.”
A chill wind gusted down the flanks of Mount Wirh and through the foothills they climbed. Hristomarth wrapped his long coat around him more tightly. Its crushed velvet and his wide-brimmed hat were meant more for the stage than these wilds, but they were better than nothing.
Vigilant Erfenot had returned most of his belongings, minus anything of real value. It was, frankly, more than Hristomarth had expected. Unfortunately, the Vigilant had gifted him with one other thing—the massive and taciturn deputy.
The fellow offered neither his name nor any interesting conversation, except to specify that he would act as Hristomarth’s warden until Seetch’s troubles were resolved. They’d then spent an awkward night’s travel, the opportunity for Hristomarth to make his planned escape never presenting itself. The deputy truly never let him out of sight, even staying awake and watchful as they had camped. So far today, the fellow seemed unaffected by his long vigil, which struck Hristomarth as unfair.
A creaking rumble sounded up ahead where the hillside pathway bent behind a copse of great dark trees. Down the path rolled a heavy, ramshackle wagon filled high with pots, pans, bedrolls, and tools. A man pulled it down the road, grunting and swearing as he went. Behind him on the bench sat a woman who stared off into the distance, as flat and emotionless as a statue. In her lap was a boy who looked like he hadn’t any tears left with which to weep. All three bore burn marks, singed clothing, and deep scratches.
Hristomath cupped his hands around his mouth while the deputy beside him moved a hand to the axe on his hip. “Diverse greetings and salutations appropriate to your philosophy!” Hristomarth called. “Would you mind terribly if I, Hristomarth Rofolio, impinge a moment upon your time?”
The man continued down the path, pulling the wagon to a stop just before them. He peered down with wary eyes. “In all the worlds that be,” he replied, “time is considered the most valuable of commodities. Every jot, tittle, ampoule, or jug of it must be balanced against the corresponding worth of all that a man may or may not be. For instance, I am a scrofulous peasant of dubious parentage at the moment, yet tomorrow I may be the Hierarch of the Unseen Precipice. What can you offer me in exchange for this possibility?”
Hristomarth raised a finger. “Ah! But future possibilities are rooted well in the circumstances of the past. A tree does not reach its potential without starting as a sapling. Since I see a dirty peasant before me now, the procession of your opportunity is unlikely to change. Therefore I offer you nothing much at all, really.”
The peasant made a sour face. “This is unfortunately well-reasoned. What would you have of me?”
“Specifically, where are you from, and whither are you bound, with such a furious mien?”
The peasant dropped the arms of his wagon angrily, causing the whole thing to pitch abruptly forward on its single axle. Behind him the woman shifted her weight and grabbed close her child, never adjusting her gaze from the remote horizon.
“Bah!” said the peasant. “We come from Seetch village, accursed place that it is. Enough I’ve had of the scaled monstrosity there. I won’t have it! I shall forsake Mountain Corn for growing turnips upon the plains.”
“Turnips are out of fashion at the moment,” said Hristomarth. “I suggest Pale Yams. But Seetch! I am bound in that direction, along with my taciturn companion. Can you tell me how far it lies, and what manner of creature dooms it?”
The peasant gestured to where the path disappeared behind the trees. “Just around the bend and atop the hill. As for the monster—”
A clamor erupted from higher up the hill, the cries of dozens of people shouting in alarm.
“By the Axioms of Tophe,” cried the peasant. “They’ve woken up!” He grabbed up his wagon and hurtled down the hillside path, the woman and child staring fearfully behind them.
“Wait!” cried Hristomarth. “What is it? What has woken?”
“Dragons!” cried the peasant. “Seven of them!”
Hristomarth made to chase after the man. Then he stopped and thought for a moment. The agreement with Vigilant Erfenot, which he had never really meant to honor, had been for him to contend with a single monster. Seven of them, and dragons at that, seemed rather beyond the scope of what any one fellow could reasonably accomplish. And the amulet in his satchel? That belonged to another, in a time long past. He faced the deputy to make this point, but the man was already staring at him, one hand on his axe. The threat in his eyes was a promise. Hristomarth sighed fatalistically and turned back uphill.
The village of Seetch lay where indicated. Hristomarth climbed, shadowed by the deputy, maybe another hundred paces before the incline of the path leveled out in front of a wide palisade wall with an open gate. Inside, the village was just as he had imagined it: a small, mean collection of grungy hovels clustered atop the hill, all pressed in together around a central grange. High above loomed the peak of Mount Wirh, casting the whole hamlet in shadow.
Within the village, pandemonium reigned.
The people of Seetch ran to and fro. They put out fires, shouted orders, ran for cover and shuttered windows. Every last person in sight was contending with the dragons, which were surprisingly smaller than Hristomarth had expected.
He had never seen a real dragon, though he had heard all the tales. Dragons were powerful, awe-inspiring creatures possessed of an innate majesty married to an intimidating brutality. These were not that.
They instead resembled overgrown lizards roughly the size of a dog. Four chubby legs protruded from a roly-poly torso covered in thick, brazen scales too large for the hide. A pair of stubby horns protruded from the reptilian head, crowning a trail of short spines that ran down along the serpentine neck all the way to the stinger-tipped tail. Two floppy wings flailed about from the shoulders, exaggerating the clumsy gait of the monsters as they walked, toppling them over with seemingly every other step. The dragons were ludicrous and laughable, yet it was all the villagers of Seetch could do to deal with them. Each and every one of the monsters was a catastrophe trailing ruin with every waddling step.
The dragon nearest the village gate crawled along the slate-shingled roof of a house. A man and woman stood below it, exhorting the beast in the Thirty-Two Contemplations of Tophe as they tried to pull it down from beneath the overhang. The dragon ignored them, continuing to pry up the shingles with its claws, letting them fall just to hear the noise they made.
On the porch next door, an old woman jabbed at another of the monsters with a broom, yelling at the top of her lungs while three children cowered behind her. The dragon hunkered low and arched its back, hissing at the woman and swatting at the broom with a chubby paw.
A plaintive cry echoed through the village as a long-haired aurochs ran into the street, dragging a string of burning laundry along with it. One of the reptilian horrors clung to its back, adding its own desperate yowl to that of its unhappy mount. It breathed panicked, reflexive flames that singed the thick hide of the aurochs, filling the air with the stink of burning hair and crazing the beast even further.
Hristomarth stepped aside as the aurochs thundered past to clip a nearby shed, threatening to collapse the whole structure. Two dragons sat at its base, chewing idly at a pair of rain barrels placed just beneath the eaves. One barrel suddenly split under this treatment, releasing gallons of rainwater that washed away one dragon in a deluge. Its fellow watched with wide eyes, continuing to chew at its own barrel until that too broke with similar results.
In the middle of the street, a group of villagers contended directly with one of the monsters. They were losing. Though just as chubby as the rest, this dragon moved with a ferocity and speed missing from its brethren. It bit at those who kicked it, tripped those that charged it, and leapt nimbly aside from those who tried to grapple it into submission. One peasant, armed with a wood-axe, leaned in and struck a blow from behind. The axe head chipped as it skittered off the dragon’s armored hide, though it knocked the creature over with the force of the blow. Everyone froze hopefully as the dragon stilled. Then it glared abruptly back at the would-be warrior with a growl. The rest of the peasants scrambled away as the beast leapt at him and landed with a diminutive roar on his face.
Hristomarth blinked in surprise. How did Vigilant Erfenot expect him to deal with this?
He began to step slowly away when a sharp pop echoed right beside him. It came from a wagon set just inside the town gate, filled with heavy sacks of shucked corn, the kernels hard and blue. The seventh dragon hunkered in one of the opened sacks, watching rapt as black wisps of smoke rose up from the center of the pile. It breathed another jet of flame and the kernels blackened, exploding into popped corn. The dragon skittered back, eyes wide in fascination.
Hristomarth edged carefully away from the wagon, shaking his head in amazement. How did this come to pass? Again, what could he do? It was obvious that this went far above and beyond the task appointed to him by Vigilant Erfenot. Any association of reasonable men would agree.
But the silver amulet was still in his satchel, heavy as a loadstone. And more importantly, while he might slip Gadasac’s deputy now if he moved quickly enough, the fellow seemed quite the sort of man who would track him down, day or night, in weather clear or unruly.
Hristomarth sighed and looked around for something to work with. A pile of torches burned merrily nearby, likely used for nightly vigils along the palisade, now lit by the string of burning laundry being dragged around the village by the aurochs. Hristomarth glanced at them, then the nearby wagon of corn, as an idea took root and grew.
He toed one of the burning brands away from the rest and then gingerly picked it up with his maimed right hand. Careful to avoid the sack inhabited by a dragon, he lit the others aflame before tossing the pitch-soaked stick into the middle.
The burlap sacks caught readily alight. A few split, sending corn and the little dragon spilling over the sides of the wagon. The rest grew into a nicely sized fire, the kernels within beginning to smoke and erupt with loud pops. In moments the popping became a hailstone torrent of reports, drowning out the rest of the cacophony in the village.
His plan worked. The dragons all perked their heads up at the sound, curious. Like moths to a candle, they left their various evil amusements and wobbled over to the burning cart, batting at the falling kernels and staring in rapture at the burning wagon.
“To the grange!” cried an old graybeard villager. “By Tophe, they are distracted. Everyone make haste to the grange hall!”
The villagers wasted no time obeying, fleeing for the great hall at the center of Seetch. Hristomarth applauded their prudence. Edging his way around the bonfire and its attendant dragons, he followed along as well. The deputy trailed warily behind.
Once inside, the stout wooden door was shut and barred. Hristomarth moved out of the way as the villagers reinforced the entrance with several heavy wooden barrels. The grange hall was one large room, with a podium at one end of a dirt-floor and numerous trestle tables filling the space.
Silence reigned. The villagers milled about. The air of angry defeat was almost palpable.
“Quickly now,” said the graybeard with an authoritative air. “Everyone gather around. I shall lead us all in contemplation of Tophe’s Axioms, that we may have comfort and serenity in the face of our troubles.”
“Serenity seems impossibly remote,” said one large man. “Action is required! You’re the hetman. Send word again to Gadasac Township for assistance.”
A chorus of agreement sprung up.
Hristomarth clapped his hands. He waited until all eyes were upon him, then doffed his wide-brimmed hat and bowed low. “Serenity is a dubious concept in these times of woe. However, it must be stated that comfort is quite achievable. Further messages are unnecessary, as Vigilant Erfenot of Gadasac has heard your pleas.”
The villagers met his words with silence. Then the hetman stepped forward. “Who are you, then, and who is the dour associate at your back?”
Hristomarth smiled. “I am Hristomarth Rofolio—”
“I recognize him!” cried the older woman with the broom. “That’s the lanky fool who set all our seed corn aflame!”
Hristomarth set his hat back on his head as the crowd grumbled. “Such action was necessary. The dragons were attracted by the noise. As well, I have done you an additional service; Mountain Corn has fallen out of favor this season. The hue of its seeds are popularly seen to be inauspicious.”
A disappointed murmur swept through the room. The farmers of the village kicked despondently at the dirt floor of the hall.
“But no matter!” continued Hristomarth. “You are freed from that agricultural misstep and may now plant again. That is, once the matter of your scaly infestation has been dealt with. Pray, how did this misfortune come to pass?”
The graybeard folded his arms across his chest, shaking his head. “It is the fault of old Nesnatoth,” he said. “Though she is at the end of her span, somehow the wyrm has whelped one final time. The clutch of monsters outside are her children, evicted from her cave high upon the slopes of Mount Wirh to fend for themselves. For it is known that all dragons are terrible parents.”
A chorus of agreement swept the room.
“One moment,” said Hristomarth. “The scaled horrors outside are children?”
“Aye,” said the graybeard. “Draconic wyrmlings. Nesnatoth landed near to the village one week ago, gave them each a mighty lick with her tongue, and flew off. The wyrmlings set up a truly dire caterwauling at being discarded so. They trouble us now out of heartsickness for their lost mother. Also, it is to be believed, because they enjoy it. Now our only peace is when they are weary and asleep, which never lasts long enough to make significant repairs.”
The peasant woman with the broom stepped forward. “What is needed,” she said, “is someone to march up Mount Wirh and confront Nesnatoth! Someone to convince her to take her hellions back in and care for them in a properly respectable manner.”
“But who could make the journey?” asked one farmer. “More, who could intimidate the dragon enough to make her take her wyrmlings back?”
“An Illuminate could do it,” said the woman.
“Possibly,” interrupted Hristomarth. “Though this is a fruitless and ignominious line of inquiry. The Illuminates are gone, dead and burned at the stake for their crimes. Good riddance aside, we must focus on tangible solutions to the problem at hand.” He glanced a farmer with an artificial hand. “Or hook, as the case may be.”
The crippled farmer nodded sagely.
“The rumors of the lowlands rarely hold much sway with us,” said the hetman. “Though your point is well-taken and pragmatism must be our watchword.” He snapped his fingers. “Ah! But did you not state that you two had been sent by the Vigilant of Gadasac Township?” He looked to the hulking deputy standing behind Hristomarth. “You there, good sir. You’ve the mien of a powerful warrior. Please, climb the slope of Mount Wirh and confront the source of our troubles. Deliver us from this blight!”
The deputy held up one hand. “I am here only to enforce the ruling of the Vigilant.” He gestured to Hristomarth. “This man has been sent to aid you. His task, then, should be to climb the slope of Mount Wirh and deal with the dragon. I will merely follow him. Wherever he should go.”
That last bit had been directed squarely at Hristomarth, who sighed inwardly. The villagers of Seetch peered at him anew.
The hetman shrugged. “Those in need can rarely afford the luxury of choice,” he said finally. “A great hero of the village, once an Illuminate, left his blade with us. With it we shall arm you, and thus will you face down Nesnatoth.”
The assembled villagers of Seetch grumbled their agreement. Outside, something crashed loudly, accompanied by the startled yet triumphant yowls of the wyrmlings.